Andrew Hawkins leads the list of the NFL’s biggest surprises so far

Brian McIntyre
Shutdown Corner

The Arizona Cardinals and St. Louis Rams kick off Week 5 of the 2012 NFL regular season on Thursday night in St. Louis. Before they do, though, here's a look at a few under-the-radar performances from the first four weeks of the season. Over 1,600 players have appeared in NFL games this season, so no this is not a definitive list, just a sample of the more noteworthy efforts thus far.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Andrew Hawkins

A runner-up on Michael Irvin's reality show "4th and Long" who spent two seasons with the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League, the 5-foot-7, 175-pound former Toledo Rockets wideout has 15 receptions (on just 19 targets) for 247 yards and two touchdowns through four games as the Bengals' No. 3 receiver this season. It's only been four weeks, but according to Football Outsiders, Hawkins ranks 11th in DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) and is No. 1 in DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average).

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Again, it's only been four weeks, and Jacoby Jones, Brandon Stokley and Ramses Barden round out the Top 4 in receiving DVOA, but Hawkins is taking advantage of his first real shot at meaningful playing time in the NFL. Through four weeks, Hawkins has 129 snaps, playing in nearly half (49.43 percent) of the Bengals' offensive snaps this season after getting just 174 offensive snaps (16.29 percent) in 13 games last season. Hawkins, who is under club control through 2014, is also playing in one-third of the Bengals' special teams snaps this season.

Seattle Seahawks defensive tackle Brandon Mebane

Unlike Hawkins, Mebane is already a fairly well-known, if not a household name. Entering his sixth NFL season, and the second of a five-year, $25 million contract extension, Mebane has 15 tackles and two sacks — both on Aaron Rodgers, his former teammate at Cal — through four games in 2012. Mebane's two sacks are the most he's had in a season since posting 5.5 in 2008 and he's been a disruptive presence in opposing backfields. In last week's 19-13 loss to the St. Louis Rams, Mebane had five solo tackles on runs of 1, zero, zero, -5 and -2 yards.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett

Since 2009, the Buccaneers have used five picks in the first three rounds on defensive linemen, including first and second-round picks in 2011 on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, both of whom are out with injuries. Picking up the slack is Michael Bennett, a 2009 undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M who the Buccaneers claimed off waivers from the Seahawks early in his rookie season.

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Bennett had four sacks last season and, after solidifying his status as a starter, has four sacks while playing in nearly 92 percent of the Buccaneers' defensive snaps through the first four weeks of the season. While we'd be hard-pressed to predict that Bennett will remain on his sack per game pace, an eight-to-10 sack season would set the 6-foot-3, 274-pound defensive end to do quite well for himself should he hit the unrestricted free-agent market next March.

And since players are not the only one performing during the games…

St. Louis Rams special teams coordinator John Fassel

After winning two games all of last season, and just 15 of their previous 80 contests, the Rams are 2-2 and appear to be on the upswing under first-year head coach Jeff Fisher. One of the reasons behind the turnaround is the improvement in the performance of the Rams' special teams units, which underwent a major overhaul in the offseason, beginning with the hiring of Fassel.

Fassel spent the previous three seasons with the Oakland Raiders, where he worked with perennial Pro Bowl punter Shane Lechler and kicker Sebastian Janikowski, a former first-round pick who went to his first Pro Bowl in 2011. Fassel inherited a kicking battery that consisted of 2011 undrafted free-agent long-snapper Jake McQuaide, veteran kicker Josh Brown and no punter on the roster as Donnie Jones was an unrestricted free agent. The Rams released Brown and have opted to go with rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein, a sixth-round pick from football powerhouse Missouri Western, and Johnny Hekker, an undrafted free agent from Oregon State.

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Through four games, Zuerlein, nicknamed "Greg the Leg," is a perfect 12 of 12 on field-goal attempts, including all three of his attempts beyond 50 yards. Zuerlein hit a franchise-record 60-yard field goal in last week's 19-13 win over the Seattle Seahawks, earning NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, and is fourth in the league in scoring with 41 points. Zuerlein was one of 10 nominees for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month.

Meanwhile, Hekker has a respectable 39.4-yard net average and tossed a 2-yard touchdown pass in the win over the Seahawks on a fake field goal. The Rams' kick return game could use improvement — a league-low 17.8-yard average on just four returns — but the arrival of Fassel has already resulted in marked improvement in the third phase of the game.
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